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Just what is a “christian,” exactly?

You’d think I’d know, being a minister. I’m sure that I could dust off a long-winded definition I learned in seminary. Or Google it and see what the latest Wikipedia or dictionary entry says. But I guess I’ve become a little confused, so please forgive while I struggle with this out loud for a minute.

See, I think I do know what a “christian” is and I’m having trouble finding that in the way it’s being used these days.

There’s a story in the news this week about a Tennessee pastor who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for repeatedly raping his adopted daughter over two years. Prosecutors argued for 72 years, citing the severity of the crime, but the judge (who, to be fair, under state law could have given him a suspended sentence) was inclined to be lenient because of his community work and the support of his congregation. The judge called him “a good christian man.” Really.

And it’s not like this is new. It’s just the latest in examples of hurt done by people who claim to be “christian.” And then there’s the long list of historical hurts done in the name of being “christian.” As we share more stories in search of reconciliation, we find more hurt.

But many conservative evangelical “christians” insist that there is a war on christianity. Recently, American Vice President Pence addressed a convocation at a “christian” university and said “some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs.”

Here’s two things about that. First, I know that we would disagree about what is a “traditional Christian belief.” But I think some people mistake disagreement for persecution. And I know that we can disagree with respect. It’s a challenge sometimes, but it’s possible. If we’re really being “christian.” There are many beliefs that are not mine that I disagree with, but I appreciate that they are meaningful to others.

Second, Jesus didn’t say we should tolerate people, he said we should love them. And if your so-called “belief” hurts people, denies them basic human rights, dignity and respect or disempowers them, then you should read the previous sentence again. Because when Jesus loved, he challenged those very things. He lived love and challenged hate, he lived love and treated all with dignity and respect, he lived love and brought healing to brokenness, he lived love and empowered people to live true to their hearts, trusting that they would come to see the good there.

Maybe our first mistake – our original one, if you like – was to tie “christian” to traditional beliefs rather than Jesus, to what we made of Jesus rather than Jesus’ own story. The Jesus who loved. And loved and loved.

In the gospel of John, the voice of Jesus says “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). So don’t stop at the sweet sentiment that “love one another” can easily become, because Jesus didn’t: he said, look, I showed you how. I showed you how to live with love in your heart and your hands, in your words and your actions, in your ideals and your life. I showed you how to love everyone. I showed you it can be a challenge, sometimes, but it’s always worth it.

I know we make mistakes. God knows, too, and Jesus never demanded perfection. He offered encouragement and more love. Look who Jesus chose to be his closest companions. He didn’t choose “holy” men or women. He chose ordinary people, flawed and weak people who made mistakes. Very human mistakes.

But they followed Jesus. And maybe that’s the thing about the label “christian.” Jesus, says John, didn’t stop at saying love one another. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

Today, I’d just like to be a follower of Jesus. An imperfect one, but I try.

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